The IPI global network strongly condemns the Malaysian court’s decision to sentence journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown, the founder of IPI Free Media Pioneer award winner Radio Free Sarawak, to two years in prison over her investigative reporting. We call on Malaysian courts to overturn this unjust conviction and safeguard the rights of journalists.

On Wednesday, February 7, the Kuala Terengganu Magistrates’ Court ruled that Rewcastle Brown had criminally defamed Malaysia’s former Queen Nur Zahirah in her book “The Sarawak Report – The Inside Story of the 1MDB Expose.” Rewcastle Brown, who is not currently in Malaysia, was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in absentia in a one-day hearing. Rewcastle Brown called the conviction an act of “political revenge” for her investigative work, which uncovered a major corruption scandal in Malaysia. She added that she was neither notified nor given a chance to be represented or defend herself in front of the court. 

“This ruling must be overturned immediately, and the almost decade-long legal harassment against Rewcastle Brown must end,“ IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “This unjust decision seriously undermines the rights of journalists to carry out their watchdog work and hold power to account in Malaysia. Journalists must be able to pursue their work without fear of retaliation.”

He added: “This decision also underscores the danger that criminal defamation laws pose to press freedom. We call on Malaysia to urgently bring its legal framework in line with international standards, including by repealing criminal libel laws.”

Rewcastle Brown told IPI that her lawyers in Malaysia have already called for a reversal of the ruling, referring to it as a clear violation of Malaysia’s criminal code. 

“I hope by pushing back we can establish that locally powerful people can’t abuse international procedures to go after journalists from abroad in their own countries.  It is as much about intimidating local journalists sadly (and keeping me from further coverage myself),” she told IPI. 

The 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal

While investigating the deforestation of Sarawak, Borneo, and the displacement of its inhabitants back in 2005, Rewcastle Brown traced a path of corruption that brought her to the center of Malaysian politics. Rewcastle Brown’s investigations led to the exposure of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal, also known as 1MDB Development Fund scandal, revealing a large-scale kleptocracy scheme later referred to as the  “largest kleptocracy case to date”. 

Following the scandal, Najib Razak, Malaysia’s prime minister at the time, and his government were voted out. Subsequently, Razak faced prosecution and received a 12-year prison sentence in 2020 for graft and money laundering. However, earlier this month, Malaysian authorities reduced his prison term and fines, a decision that has stirred significant outcry in the country.

Ongoing legal harassment 

This is not the first instance of legal harassment faced by Rewcastle Brown. “My reward [for breaking the 1MDB scandal] has been years of hounding and harassment by the Malaysian authorities which has continued under the supposedly reforming government of the current Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim,” Rewcastle Brown told IPI. 

Malaysian authorities attempted to have Rewcastle Brown arrested internationally via a Red Notice request twice; however, Interpol rejected the request both times. Between 2017 and 2019, she faced legal proceedings in the London libel courts initiated by Abdul Hadi Awang, the president of Malaysia’s PAS Islamic Party. However, the case was withdrawn before reaching trial. Furthermore, Rewcastle Brown was subject to other legal disputes in Malaysia, resulting in a warrant for her arrest issued in September 2021. As of June 2021, the arrest warrant requiring her to face criminal defamation charges has reportedly lapsed. 

The persistent legal harassment against Rewcastle Brown underscores the urgent need to protect press freedom and journalists’ rights in Malaysia.